I have a fairly vivid memory of how well I utilised my time at my first networking event, as the two hour occasion was spent speaking with my already-established group of university friends and eyeing off the free food and drinks. For an event that featured some of the biggest graduate employers in Queensland, I definitely squandered a big learning opportunity by not being inquisitive enough and not getting more out of the event beyond a particularly delicious platter of meat pies. To be honest, I was definitely nervous to approach real professionals I’d never met and had even less of an idea of what to talk about or how it would lead to any career opportunities for myself.
Networking events sometimes prove a challenge for students in the earlier years of their degree. We are not caught in the mad rush of nailing down graduate roles and haven’t learnt as much as our senior peers about potential employers or how to approach establishing and developing our own networks. Networking is a skill that demands practise, and like any hobby or talent that requires honing, you can’t really expect to be a natural your first time out (I certainly wasn’t and still am not). It’s about forming relationships, making great impressions and learning not only about the career possibilities available after university, but also how you can improve your interpersonal skills in a professional environment.
Stepping outside of your comfort zone is never an easy thing, but is often necessary and beneficial in our journeys as professionals and people. To achieve our career aspirations, BEL students, perhaps more than any other discipline in UQ, are required to lay the groundwork early for our future professional successes. Taking the initial steps into our career, one of which is establishing our professional network, may be nerve-wracking but as the Australian Institute of Management’s Rhoda Tumusiime phrased so concisely at our Insight into Networking event last year, we have to “start connecting with the people that scare us.” Networking involves talking to and making a positive impression on people who you have not actually met before. Making that initial contact, scarily enough for some of us, is the whole point.
It helps to start perceiving networking as an opportunity to set foundations for mutually beneficial relationships. Getting the chance to talk one on one with professionals who are where you might aspire to be isn’t an everyday chance for most university students.
Preparation for these conversations can often be a big help, so before an event, take some time to peruse which organisations you’re interested in talking to and do a bit of research beforehand. Developing a sense of familiarity of the company’s values and activities can give you something to talk about. Your prior knowledge provides more value from the conversation while you’re not stuck asking obvious questions. Come with a strategy of how you’d like to start conversations as well as aiming to showcase the best version of yourself. You want to stand out in the minds of people you meet, try to leave a positive personal impression with the connections you make.
By the same token, bring a curious attitude to networking. Asking open-ended, intriguing questions to the professionals and your peers alike helps to facilitate a memorable conversation, leaving you with a sense of confidence and a greater insight into the life and career of the other person. Some examples of topics for leading questions could include asking about their job, their interests or what they love about their company. Be fully engaged with the person you’re speaking to, listening well is a valued, if underappreciated, skill that sets students apart more than we realise. Strive to gain value from the conversation by asking genuine questions, from a professional standpoint, but striking up conversation like you are making a new friend allows you to build rapport first so that the business discussion will easily flow.
If the discussion went well, don’t be afraid to ask for contact details and follow up if and when you feel it is appropriate, whether via LinkedIn, email or a phone call. Approach networking as an exciting chance to create; whether it’s new relationships, new experiences or even just new knowledge for you to grow from!
Looking for a chance to enhance your networking skills? UQBA hosts a generous portfolio of corporate events throughout the year including Professional Pathways this Tuesday the 21st of March.